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Lame Ducks Still Fly In Congress

3:25 PM, Sep 18, 2012   |    comments
Courtesy AP
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Written By: Fredreka Schouten, USA TODAY

WASHINGTON -- Some congressional lame ducks are flying the globe during their final months in office.

Rep. Dan Burton, R-Ind., for instance, announced in January that he would not seek re-election to a 16th House term this year, citing family health concerns. In April and May, however, he and his wife racked up nearly $33,000 in travel to Taiwan and Bahrain, courtesy of private groups.

Burton is among nine lame-duck lawmakers who have accepted free travel from outside groups since announcing their retirements or losing their seats in primary elections, according to a USA TODAY tally of data compiled by the non-partisan Political MoneyLine. More than a dozen lame-duck senators and House members also have traveled abroad at taxpayer expense, congressional records show.

The lawmakers describe these trips as fact-finding missions that will shape their thinking on legislation. Citing partisan stalemates on Capitol Hill, Craig Holman of the watchdog group Public Citizen instead calls them "vacations for retiring members of Congress."

"We've got a Congress that isn't doing anything," Holman said. "The trips aren't educational. They have no meaningful purpose for government policy."

Holman was part of a coalition of watchdog groups that helped craft ethics rules that Congress adopted in 2007, barring lawmakers from taking trips longer than two nights at the expense of corporations and others that employ lobbyists. Fewer limits are imposed on travel sponsored by non-profit groups.

So far this year, all members of Congress -- including departing lawmakers, those seeking re-election in November and senators not up for re-election -- have reported taking 296 privately funded trips for a total price tag of nearly $1.5 million, according to Political MoneyLine. That's slightly ahead of the 285 trips lawmakers took costing $1.4 million during all of 2010, the last election year.

The Aspen Institute, a non-profit funded by foundations, is the biggest sponsor of congressional travel in 2012, spending more than $464,000. Indiana Sen. Richard Lugar and his wife spent nearly a week in Brussels in August on Aspen's tab. Lugar, a six-term senator and the top Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was tossed out by voters in a May primary.

Officials with Aspen and Lugar's staff say the $12,000 trip was no junket but a chance to offer his foreign-affairs expertise. The conference focused on U.S. and European relations with Russia. A signature Lugar achievement was a 1991 law that paid Russia and other countries to dismantle their weapons of mass destruction.

"It would be outrageous to suggest the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee should not be doing his job," Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said. Even in retirement, he said, Lugar plans to "advance American foreign policy and nonproliferation."

Dan Glickman, a former Agriculture secretary who runs Aspen's congressional program, said Lugar "was significantly involved in making the world safer" and participated in the gathering not "only as a member" of Congress "but as a scholar in this effort."

Burton, who serves on the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is among the lame-duck lawmakers with the biggest private travel tabs, according to USA TODAY's tally.

He and his wife, Samia, traveled to Bahrain and Qatar in April funded by the Bahrain American Council, a group launched in 2011 that says it is focused on promoting trade and "educating the public about the strategic importance of Bahrain." The Gulf kingdom, home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, has been the site of clashes since February 2011 between the Sunni monarchy and Shiite-led protesters, who say they lack political power.

Phone calls and e-mails to Burton's office were not returned.

In filings with the U.S. House of Representatives, Burton said the goal of his trip was to "discuss bilateral relations," speak about current events at the University of Bahrain and visit the fleet.

The following month, Burton and his wife flew first-class to Taiwan, courtesy of Fu Jen Catholic University, a private college. In his paperwork, Burton said he met with government officials, faculty and students "to promote mutual understandings."

Other lame-duck travelers include retiring Reps. Mike Ross, D-Ark., and Dan Boren, D-Okla., who also traveled to Taiwan with their spouses on Fu Jen's tab. Phone calls to their offices were not returned.

Rep. Dennis Kucinich, meanwhile, took a $15,000 trip in May to United Arab Emirates funded by the American University in Dubai. Kucinich, a two-time presidential contender, lost a March primary to fellow Ohio Democrat Rep. Marcy Kaptur after being thrown into a faceoff by redistricting. Kucinich traveled alone.

Kucinich spokesman Nathan White said Kucinich made the trip to deliver a commencement speech. "He flew in, gave the speech and returned immediately to Washington," White said.

Other lawmakers have continued to head abroad on government-funded trips.

In May, two months after losing her primary, Rep. Jean Schmidt, R-Ohio, traveled to Qatar, Afghanistan, Hungary, Taiwan and South Korea. "She's a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee," Schmidt spokesman Barrett Brunsman said in an interview. "That's the reason she took the trips."

There is no way to tally the full cost of lawmakers' government-funded trips overseas because the military picks up most of those transportation costs and those expenses are not usually disclosed on congressional travel reports.

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